My Prokofiev

Covers P6144607_edited-1This is really music that deserves always to be played and always to be heard. His music touches . . . absolutely all the aspects of our life and our character.

—pianist Denis Kozhukhin

I was introduced to Sergei Prokofiev’s music in college.* An acquaintance who played violin claimed there was no higher instrument—certainly the piano could not come close—and was about to demonstrate why. He stood poised over the phonograph, a recording of Prokofiev’s Violin Concertos in hand. He looked almost shame-faced (not his usual style), so I wondered what was up. “I know Prokofiev is considered a lightweight,” he said, “but I like him anyway.”

I was captivated by the concertos, but I wasn’t about to say so, for it would come at the price of conceding the violin was a more expressive instrument than the piano. The more he insisted, the more I resisted. I played the piano as a kid and had my loyalties to maintain, after all. But more than that, why did it need to be a contest?

A few years later, I began to acquire my own Prokofiev recordings. I had no idea what was what, but it seemed only reasonable that I should give the piano concertos a try. My first purchase was a recording of Piano Concertos 3 and 5, and oh how splendid they were! The fellow who’d proclaimed the superiority of the violin wasn’t around to be convinced, but it didn’t matter. From then on, while all around me were playing The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead top volume on their stereos, those piano concertos were rocking out on mine.

Time passed, the records got put away somewhere, CDs replaced vinyl, and I moved on to other things. A couple years ago, Prokofiev came to my attention again. David Nice, it transpired, had written a book about him, so I picked it up. A good bit of it sailed over my head, I’ll admit, but it’s full of my margin notes, one of them marking a favorite story of mine from the book.

The story concerned Prokofiev’s first opera (written when he was nine). Nice wrote, “Toward the end, the piano line flew higher and higher until it disappeared off the keyboard.” Those two piano concertos came to mind at once. Though in the concertos, the piano lines stayed within the piano’s range, I could have sworn I heard notes lift off the keyboard and rocket into space.

I never really got what the “lightweight” claim was about. I recalled it only recently, when Denis Kozhukhin, a pianist who was born in Russia, made a claim for Prokofiev’s three War Sonatas (Sonatas 6, 7, and 8) to quite the opposite effect:

These sonatas are, I think, as important for Russian music in the twentieth century as Shostakovich symphonies. [Prokofiev’s] music was very special for me since I was a kid. He has always touched me, and he has always made me look into the past of my own country.

1991_CPA_6314I knew something of the travails of Shostakovich, but nothing about those of Prokofiev, aside from the bare fact. The War Sonatas, I soon learned, were directly affected by the vagaries of State judgment. Though the Eighth Sonata received a Stalin Prize in 1946, that didn’t stop it from being banned. (Nor did Prokofiev’s award of the rank of People’s Artist of the RSFSR in 1947.) Alex Ross wrote:

On February 10, 1948, the Central Committee issued what became known as the “Historic Decree.” Four days later, forty-two works by “formalists”—including Shostakovich’s Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth symphonies [and] Prokofiev’s Sixth and Eight Sonatas . . .—were banned.

Yet the impact of the War Sonatas on Kozhukhin wasn’t explained by history alone. Kozhukhin went on to say of them,

It also helps me to try to understand the present of my country. They still remain for me extremely modern, you know? They touch the problems. Maybe now I’m talking like it could be a book, but for me it is. This is really music that deserves always to be played and always to be heard. His music touches all the, absolutely all the, aspects of our life and our character . . . .

Sketches_by_Larionov_for_the_ballet_Chout_with_music_by_Prokoviev_May_1921_-_GallicaKozhukhin’s reference to “modern” struck me, too. In the midst of trying to learn more about Prokofiev and his War Sonatas, I attended an exhibit of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in Washington, DC. The constellation of talent Diaghilev collected for collaborations among artists and composers, including Prokofiev, surely qualifies as one of the grandest of modernist experiments. The exhibit catalogue refers to Prokofiev specifically, along with Stravinsky, as “cutting-edge” and “modernist.”

Musicologist Richard Taruskin, though, might be seen to disagree:

Not even Prokofieff, conservatory-trained and proud of it, was truly an avant-garde artist. His technique, like Stravinsky’s or Scriabin’s, may have been “advanced” by conservatory standards, but it was elite, highly professionalized, and . . . committed to extending a tradition. That implies loyalty to the tradition one is extending, even if one is extending it to the point of “decadence.” An avant-garde is something else. The term is military, and it implies belligerence: countercultural hostility, antagonism to existing institutions and traditions.

Perhaps Stravinsky’s comment about composing within established forms holds the key:

In borrowing a form already established and consecrated, the creative artist is not in the least restricting the manifestations of his personality. On the contrary, it is more detached and stands out better, when it moves within the limits of a convention.

4111_cover-300x300It’s certainly true that Prokofiev, in composing the War Sonatas, used a well-established form. Yet, for me, the sound Prokofiev pours into that form seems as fresh and boundary-breaking as many 21st century compositions do.

Sviatoslav Richter, for whom Prokofiev composed the Seventh Sonata, wrote at the time, “with this work, we are brutally plunged into the anxiously threatening atmosphere of a world that has lost its balance. Chaos and uncertainty reign.” What’s remarkable to me about his observation is how closely it fits my own experience in listening to that sonata today.

Both within and between movements, we are not allowed our balance. We have no choice but to hold on in terror and in hope. The first movement opens on a race of notes and percussive punches that slowly fade into a drifting dream, only to abandon it and build to a furious boil. The music dissolves again into reverie, out of which we’re yanked by a last torrent of notes.

The second movement caresses us with pure melody, rescuing us from the taunt of nightmare and allowing us our dreams. Yet here, too, as we float on each lovely note, anguish tugs at melody and surmounts it. We hang on in hope until, in slowly rocking rhythms, the terror fades away, and the longed-for melody returns. The last movement breaks utterly the spell of song in a shower of percussive bursts. We are propelled into a wild chaos from which we can be saved only by magisterial pianistic control.

Kozhukhin closed his remarks by telling us what Prokofiev’s music, and particularly the War Sonatas, means to him:

What is so special about his music is that he has really two lines in his music, not in only these sonatas, but in these sonatas I think he really gets to the extreme of it, which is, one of them is epic side of his music and the other line is this extremely intimate, lyric, and touching, sometimes shy, melodic way of talking through the music, and the contrast of these two things is really incredible.

I agree—and what’s more, in the War Sonatas, Prokofiev achieves that incredible result by means of a single instrument: the piano.


*Postscript: I have been reminded by a very reliable familial source that, truth be told, my very first introduction to Prokofiev was at a much younger age, via Peter and the Wolf, on an LP in which Eleanor Roosevelt was the narrator. I still worry about what happened to that duck.


Listening List:

On Spotify:

The War Sonatas, played by Denis Kozhukhin

The War Sonatas, played by Sviatoslav Richter

On Youtube:

Seventh Sonata, played by Sviatoslav Richter

(1st Movement)

(2nd & 3rd Movements)

Seventh Sonata, third movement, played by Denis Kozhukhin


Credits: I am indebted, as I often am, to David Nice’s blog for the introduction to the War Sonatas and the Kozhukhin and Richter recordings. The blog post about Kozhukhin’s live performance of the War Sonatas, as part of London’s The Rest is Noise Festival, may be found here. The quotations from Denis Kozhukhin are my transcription of his comments about the War Sonatas, which may be found here. Kozhukhin’s website may be found here. The quotation from David Nice’s book, Prokofiev—A Biography: From Russia to the West 1891-1935, may be found here. The quotation about the “Historic Decree,” from Alex Ross’s book, The Rest Is Noise, may be found here. The exhibit catalog from which indicated quotations were taken (including that from Stravinsky) is no longer available through the National Gallery of Art from the exhibit catalog, but the site with information on the exhibit may be found here.  The quotation from Richard Taruskin’s book, Music in the Early Twentieth Century, may be found here. The quotation from Richter may be found in many sources, including the program notes here, along with some commentary on the Seventh Sonata.

Photo Credits: The photograph at the head of the post is mine, of albums I own. The remaining images may be found at the hyperlinks indicated: Prokofiev with his first opera scoreUSSR stamp, Birth Centenary of Prokofiev, 1991Sketches for the costume and set designs of Prokofiev’s ballet Chout, premiered by the Ballets Russes in Paris May 17, 1921Album Cover, Prokofiev Sonatas 6, 7, 8, pianist Denis KozhukhinSergei Prokofiev as drawn by Henri Matisse April 25, 1921.

19 thoughts on “My Prokofiev

  1. Liesl Garner

    This is fantastic. I once worked for a Symphony, and had the honor of designing the brochure for the new Maestro’s inaugural season. Against most of the board’s wishes, I wanted to describe the music, and not just give the name of the piece we would be performing. I wanted to attract a younger audience. In researching Shostokovich’s 5th Symphony, I came across responses from people who had been at the premiere, during the height of Stalin’s Great Terror. I used their quotes in our brochure, saying, “After the first movement, we were all looking around wondering if we would be arrested for just listening to it. It was so obviously a fist in the face of Stalin.” Apparently there were guards at the premiere waiting to take him away, but the audience gave a 45 minute standing ovation. I love these stories. If we told the stories behind the music, more people would want to listen. Now I want to go listen to the links you provided. Thank you!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Liesl: How nice to see you here! You must have stories to tell from your symphony experience! I’m amazed the Board with which you worked was largely against your idea, which seems absolutely right to me. Knowing the context, for me, always adds to the listening experience. After all, Prokofiev and Shostakovich both lived in interesting times, to say the least! Speaking of Shostakovich, do you know Sarah Quigley’s book The Conductor, which is about Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7? It’s a remarkable story, as you no doubt know. Also, if of interest, I wrote a bit about the historical context in which that symphony was written, together with the context in which Claude McKay wrote his poem “If We Must Die” here: It was through learning about the poem’s historical context that I came to appreciate the true power of the poem.

  2. David N

    I do hope the phenomenal Kozhukhin brings his programme of all three so-called ‘war sonatas’ to a concert hall near you some time soon. What he says is so eloquent, isn’t it? Though two of the best sentences I’ve ever read about Prokofiev’s music are these, yours of course on the Seventh Sonata: ‘Both within and between movements, we are not allowed our balance. We have no choice but to hold on in terror and in hope’. Brava!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I will definitely be on the look-out for Kozhukhin, believe you me! It’s remarkable how much insight he brings to the War Sonatas, specifically, and Prokofiev’s music generally, in his brief remarks. I’m a bit wordless that you, of all people, would find my two sentences among the best you’ve read on Prokofiev’s work, but happy, too, that I may have done the Seventh justice. The War Sonatas are astonishing works, and I owe knowing about them entirely to you. Thank you so much.

  3. Mark Kerstetter

    I admire your writing on music so much. You’re getting better and better. I love how you’ve described this great music. This part might be my favorite:

    “Though in the concertos, the piano lines stayed within the piano’s range, I could have sworn I heard notes lift off the keyboard and rocket into space.”

    -and of course the exquisite contrast in the sonatas that you describe so well.

    On the modernist question (what is, in strict terms, what isn’t quite, the distinctions between “avant-garde”, modern, post-modern, as well as between the terms and the art itself): I’ve been toying with these knots my whole adult life and I tell you I don’t think they can be untangled. I can tell you that Prokofiev sounds powerfully modern to me, and in no way lightweight. Sometimes a modern artist’s connection to traditional forms is more conservative, other times it’s looser, more experimental and sometimes it’s done in a way that encourages us to perceive them as beyond modernism in a sense we call “post-modern”. I don’t have the knowledge to analyze how conservative Prokofiev was, but his music doesn’t sound retrograde to me, but immediate and powerful – modern. As much as Matisse’s – gotta say his portrait is gorgeous.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        Mark: I assume the passage to which you were referring is this, from Kozhukhin: “What is so special about his music is that he has really two lines in his music, not in only these sonatas, but in these sonatas I think he really gets to the extreme of it, which is, one of them is epic side of his music and the other line is this extremely intimate, lyric, and touching, sometimes shy, melodic way of talking through the music, and the contrast of these two things is really incredible.” I, too, loved the way he described Prokofiev’s music, particularly the “melodic way of talking through the music.” It’s wonderful to hear from someone who clearly has this music so deep in his bones, isn’t it?

        1. Mark Kerstetter

          Yes, and I’ll be sure to check out his performance of the sonatas too. His use of the word “modernist”, along with Stravinsky’s statement help to guide through or around the knot that entangles the “avant-garde” with “modernism”. Modernists certainly are interested in “making it new” but there are different temperaments among different artists, and differences in degree become differences in kind. There are hard-core avant-gardists who violently rejected the past and had an energy that burned into the future, and then there are those who enjoyed history, used it and worked with it in their experimentation. There are many degrees among artists between these two extremes which makes a general conversation on modernism very difficult (which is why, in my opinion, particular discussions – particular artists and particular works – are more fruitful than general discussions of terms like “modernism”). By the way, the complete absence of the hard-core avant-garde temper is one of the primary features of post-modernism. These are of course just my personal observations….

          1. Susan Scheid Post author

            Mark: This is a terrific, and terrifically useful, explication of the differences. It did seem to me, similar, I think, to what you state, that an attribute of post-modernism would be no need to reject the past, but simply to absorb its lessons and move forward from there.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I’m delighted that you chose that line as a favorite. (I loved learning from Nice’s book that the young Prokofiev actually wrote a piece in which the piano line disappeared off the keyboard; it is so like what I hear in some passages.) As for the modernist question, these terms continually elude my grasp, and I’m always grateful for your perspective. I like particularly your observations about the various connections artists make to traditional forms. On that issue, I was happy to stumble upon the quote from Stravinsky. I think his observation explains a lot about why the War Sonatas, particularly, sound so fresh and new to me: it’s as if Prokofiev has taken an established form and set fire to it with his astonishing musical ideas. I can’t think of the work of anyone else that sounds like Prokofiev’s.

      1. David N

        On the ‘disappearing off the keyboard’, I’ll never forget being at a Postnikova/Rozhdestvensky performance of the First Piano Concerto with my pal Ed Seckerson, who noted that the crazy Mr and Mrs R played the crowning appearance of the big tune as if it were going to rocket through the roof. It’s the only time I’ve heard it done with broad humour, possibly unintended. The original ending of The Gambler, so much better than the noisy revision, has the music for the ball going round the roulette table whistle off in to space.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Well, that sure would have been fun to hear/see live! As for the Gambler, of course I want to hear this ending, but am not sure how to find it. If you can ID a recording with the original ending, I’d love to know!

  4. newleafsite

    Susan, I must begin by mentioning that my “share” of this post over on newleafsite’s facebook page drew nice compliments on the increasing merit – and beauty – in your writing!

    On a lighter note, I also met Prokofiev through “Peter and the Wolf.” Would you believe that our family’s recording was narrated by Boris Karloff? I always thought that I knew what became of the duck, later, offstage. We know that the wolf hastily swallows the duck whole; and we are told that he is still alive, because at the end we hear his oboe voice from inside the wolf’s belly. I had observed our cat coughing up the occasional hairball – a dramatic affair, culminating in the hairball flying out of the cat’s mouth. So I thought that, as the duck had gone into the wolf whole and was still alive, he would come back out whole. I imagined him being spewed out of the convulsing wolf’s mouth and rushing off with a noisy oboe-ish flutter! Just my childhood theory .. but it still seems right — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: How nice of you to “share” this post, not to mention your kind words. I love the comparison to a cat discharging a hairball, and I think your deduction has got to be exactly right!

  5. Steve Schwartzman

    Yes, you wrote well here, but I’ve never known you not to write well in your blog.

    Eve (my wife) and I recently watched Robert Greenberg’s six-hour presentation on the life and works of Shostakovich. A continuing theme, in both Shostakovich’s music and his life, was the horror of the Communist dictatorship. On and off over the decades, Stalin lashed out at Shostakovich, but I learned that Stalin also gave a hard time to Prokofiev and Khachaturian. But then, who didn’t that megalomaniac persecute?

    Your post marks the first time I’ve heard that some people consider Prokofiev “a lightweight.” I suspect that reflects a bias those people have against composers who can and do write great melodic passages like some of the ones Prokofiev put into Cinderella and Alexander Nevsky.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: The presentation about Shostakovich must have been great. My introduction to Shostakovich’s travails was through William T. Vollman’s Europe Central, a gripping novel in which Shostakovich is a central character. (Indeed, who did escape Stalin’s grip? I really don’t know how anyone managed to get creative work done in such an environment, and yet they did.) As for “lightweight,” who knows what that could have meant, but yes, Prokofiev certainly had a gift for melody. What I love about the War Sonatas is how he incorporated extremes, from lyric to epic, as Kozhukhin puts it, into a brilliant whole.

      1. David N

        I’ve always felt that if as great, occasionally experimental – if not avant gardist, and I thank Mark for so eloquently outlining the differences – a composer as Prokofiev could declare that ‘melody is the most important part of music’ and ‘there can be no end to melody’, ie of the irregular, unhackneyed and non-trivial variety, then one should have the confidence to want it still to be so. Of course there are plenty of composers who don’t have that aim, but if not a melody, then a ‘hook’, a memorable phrase of the kind I found countless examples of in Barry’s deliriously wonderful opera of The Importance of Being Earnest’, should do.

        The only recording I know of the original Gambler is the one made live at the Bolshoy when Rozhdestvensky did it there, and released on a hugely expensive Japanese label (Denon, I think). I wish I knew how to get such things down as files and send them to you, but no doubt burning CDs and trusting them to the post might be the next best thing – if I weren’t caught and sued for copyright…

        Long sentences, sorry, dashed off late at night. Hope you can disentangle…

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: the quotations from Prokofiev on melody are perfect, and I absolutely endorse your conclusion that “one should have the confidence to want it still to be so.” I seem to recall, also, that Neeme Jarvi particularly admired Prokofiev’s skill at melody, but couldn’t find the reference (which I’m sure came from you, if I’ve got this right at all). To write melody that is fresh, after all the great ones that have come before, is surely a challenge of the highest sort, too. (I’ll be on the lookout for that original Gambler you note. So much great music to listen to, never enough time!)

          As an aside on other things music, after reading your review of City Noir, I lined up the finales from Naive & Sentimental and City Noir, with that from Harmonielehre for good measure. Quite an interesting exercise. What I hear, listening to them chronologically, is a progression, always in a musical language that I recognize as Adams’s, but building on and expanding that language over time. I wish I had better words to bring to this, but that’s the gist of my impression.

          1. David N

            Neeme’s delightful comment, adopting the Russian (and Estonian too, for all I know) double negative, was ‘more melodic composer than Prokofiev I not never heard’.

            You are now far better qualified than I am to write about the development in Adams’s style between two final movements.

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